It’s relatively easy to be critical of the current British Government when it comes to student migration to the UK. We are regularly told that Britain is open to the brightest and best students, that British education is widely respected around the world (it is in fact the UK’s 2nd largest export by value), and that our economy greatly benefits from the tuition fee and living expenses revenue. All of this is true yet so quickly forgotten by politicians doing what they do best – politicking, jostling for position, trying to secure votes. All the tangible and quantifiable benefits of international student migration to the UK are dropped in favour of reducing net migration figures and gaining support from voters who are concerned about immigration.
The UK Coalition Government has received sharp, sustained criticism for including international students in the net migration figures. Further, these valuable visitors to the UK have deliberately been targeted in order that the Coalition can try to live up to its pledge to reduce net UK migration (they are few other groups to target because of the poor nature of a net migration figure!). Whilst the British Government has waxed-lyrical about progress towards its target of reducing net migration to the tens of thousands by 2015, at what cost? In the 12 months to September 2012, Britain’s education industry recorded a drop of 26% in the number of visa national students (that is, students from outside the EU).
Isn’t this an entirely short-sighted approach by the Government given the benefit of international students to the UK and the fact that within higher education, international students fund places and even whole courses for local students.?
New to enter the fray is Boris Johnson, the Mayor of London. He has, disappointingly in my opinion, echoed calls for the world’s brightest to be able to freely come and study in the UK. More positively however, he has repeated disappointment in the fact that students are included in net migration figures. He is particularly critical of the Government’s clear strategy of reducing net migration by reducing the numbers of students coming to the UK. Boris Johnson holds hope that Government will soon be forced to change direction and question deeper the way migration figures are processed and used in future.
Some good news amongst all the gloom is that the UK has still managed to keep itself an attractive study destination amongst many international students. Whilst it is undoubtedly true that for some nationalities it has become extremely difficult to secure a UK student visa, a recent Association of Language Travel Organisations (ALTO) report shows that the UK, “…was perceived as being a very attractive place to study for 64 per cent of respondents”.
However, there is still room for improvement for Brand UK: the same ALTO report placed the USA first with 73%, and Canada has increased by 15% since 2008, putting it equal second with the UK. In the last four years of publishing such a report, no other country has increased its reputation as much as Canada. This is a clear sign that international students are turning away from countries with highly restrictive visa regulations and are instead considering those that appear more welcoming.